- Associated Press - Monday, December 13, 2010

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A South Korean fishing boat sank in the Antarctic Ocean’s frigid waters Monday, with 22 sailors feared killed in the open sea where vessels trawl for deep-water fish.

Five sailors were confirmed dead and 20 survivors were rescued shortly after the 614-ton vessel went down some 1,400 miles south of New Zealand, about halfway to Antarctica, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry and coast guard said. Seventeen sailors were missing.

Anyone who fell into such waters typically would be dead in 10 minutes without special suits or lifejackets, though nearby fishing boats searched frantically in hopes that some may be in a life raft, New Zealand’s rescue coordination center said.

“We were fortunate that there were a number of vessels in the general area (where the boat sank), so they were able to provide assistance,” said Ross Henderson, a spokesman for the center.

It was unclear why the vessel sank in light winds and a relatively mild 3-foot swell.

Lee Wu-won of Seoul-based Insung Corp., which owns the boat, said a South Korean fishing trawler operating nearby first contacted Insung officials about the sinking early Monday.

Tearful family members of the missing sailors gathered at Insung’s office in the southeastern port city of Busan and waited for news on their loved ones.

The brother-in-law of the boat’s missing skipper, Yu Young-sup, said the captain had told him in a recent phone call that he didn’t want to work on the trawler any longer. “I only hope he will return home alive,” Kim Sun-su said, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

The search for survivors was scaled down later Monday, and rescuers said it was increasingly unlikely further survivors would be found. Two New Zealand fishing boats were released from the effort, but three Korean vessels searched on, officials said.

The trawler had 42 people on board when it sunk: eight South Koreans, eight Chinese, 11 Indonesians, 11 Vietnamese, three Filipinos and one Russian, the South Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The confirmed dead included two Indonesians, two South Koreans and one Vietnamese, a ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of office rules. He said four Chinese sailors were missing while four other Chinese were rescued.

Many fishing vessels ply the remote seas to haul in deep-water fish such as the Patagonian toothfish, also known as Chilean sea bass, to sell to restaurants around the world. With world consumption of seafood increasing, commercial fleets have begun to operate farther offshore to meet demand.

Rescuers considered calling in aircraft from either New Zealand or from the U.S. Antarctic research station on McMurdo Sound, but Mr. Henderson said the plan was abandoned because neither plane could reach the distant search area in time to find survivors.

Hyung-jin Kim reported from Seoul.